The Dark Forest

Willow lived with her father and mother on the northern edge of a dark forest, so vast that it was said that no-one knew the extent of it. When she was small, she played in the meadow close to her home.  As she grew older, she accompanied her mother to the edge of the forest, to forage for mushrooms, wild fruits and berries, edible flowers and roots. Her father taught her to hunt for rabbits, and to catch fish in the river, and she became accustomed to bringing quarry home from her daily walks. Although she could not enter the forest alone she thought more and more of the world within and beyond it. How long might it take to walk to the other side? What kind of life would she find there? There was no way to know the answer to these questions. By the time she was sixteen, she would often climb into the high branches of the great oak trees at the forest margin, from where she stared into the dark interior, and imagined all the magical things that might be found there. But only by doing something can it truly be known.

Sometimes in the evening whilst Willow’s mother was combing her long golden hair, she shared her thoughts and dreams with her parents.  As they listened to her yearnings, they knew that Willow was touched by the spirit of adventure, and it would not be so long before she would embark on life’s great journey. They decided to cherish every moment of every day that they had Willow in their life, knowing that one day soon she would be gone.

When that day came, it was neither planned nor prepared. Willow was walking on the northern edge of the dark forest, wearing her leather mantle over her bow and arrows and her hunting knife, when she saw in the distance something she had never seen before. It was a gate, made of ancient willow wood, and an old woman with white hair, with a deeply wrinkled face that told a thousand stories, standing by the gate, and smoking a short-stemmed pipe.

The old woman watched motionlessly as Willow approached, as if studying deep into her heart. Willow felt a strange sensation that she had been here before, and that the old woman was someone she had always known, as if in a dream. She walked right up to her, and they looked into each other’s eyes. Willow was entranced by the unfathomable depth and the kindness in the old woman’s gaze. “Who are you, grandmother?” Willow asked. “I am the door, I am the key. Through me you will become who you will be.” Willow’s heart quickened at this strange rhyme.

“I’ve never noticed this gate before.”  The old woman nodded and blew out some smoke. “Is there a pathway behind the gate?” The old woman nodded again, and smiled. “Where does it lead?” The old woman’s face opened into the kindest smile, and she said: “This gate leads to your future, my dear. It is the gate of destiny. Are you ready to enter? For only by doing something can it truly be known”

The old woman stepped aside and Willow saw a beautiful path descending through a sun dappled glade, and in the distance, a mother deer and her fawns were playing. She walked through the gate, and began to skip along the path, turning only once to call out: “Thank you Grandmother” but now there was no-one there, just the gate of destiny, fallen open.

Willow followed the path. It took her deeper and deeper into the forest, under great oak and beech trees. At a stream she saw a family of swans, and an otter’s holt. And as she walked, she was more and more entranced by the magic of the forest. She saw wonders she had never known, and drank it all in. When it became too dark to see, she was so tired that she simply lay down on some soft moss, and slept peacefully until dawn. She continued along the path the next morning, and it took her over dales, through hollows and around trees so large that she could not see the top of their canopies. She ate nuts and berries, which were fat and sweet and drunk water directly from the stream or the waterfall and she felt that she was in paradise. At no stage did she stop to consider returning. She felt that when it was time, it would be easy to turn around and follow the same path, back to the ancient gate, and her meadow home. Until that time, only by doing something can it truly be known.

After three days, the path abruptly ended, and she was faced with a bramble wood that was so wide and so dark, that it was like permanent night inside. There were various animal paths that allowed passage through the briars, and Willow chose one of them. It was hard to travel through the briar. The path had been made by boars and badgers, and she had to crawl on her belly, often being scratched by thorns or by the rough earth. Her clothes became tangled and torn. Her golden hair was sometimes caught and she had to struggle to get free. But Willow did not mind, this was an adventure, and she was curious what she would find on the other side. When night came, she could go neither forwards or backwards, so she had to sleep where she was. For the first time on the journey, she felt afraid. What if a wolf or a boar should find her there? But she passed the night without complaint, and woke with the memory of a strange dream, in which the old woman was singing over her body, as if she had died.

When she emerged from the briar, later that morning, she found herself in a river valley, under a high rocky waterfall. She pulled off her torn clothes and sunk into the river to wash under the streaming waterfall. And then she began to cry. At first she wept with relief, and then with delight at the beauty of the magic glade. But soon, she wept without reason. She wept for the past she had left behind, for the unknown future, and she wept because she was alone and afraid. She knew there was no way to retrace her steps and return home. She lay for most of the day by the river, and eventually she made a small fire, and caught fish in the river for her supper.

She climbed to the top of the rocky waterfall. The river above was a bubbling mountain stream, with even higher peaks all around, and the view over the canopy of the forest was spectacular. She often went there at dawn to witness the forest come to life with the crash of sunrise. This riverside paradise became Willow’s home for the next weeks. It had everything she needed. She found mushrooms, berries, nuts, wild fruits and roots, and was never hungry.

One evening, she was sitting by her fire, cracking walnuts to eat with her foraged salad, when a dug-out canoe came into view, and a man wearing only shorts and a bandanna slid up to the shore. He was perhaps as old as her father, and he smiled at her very kindly. He had been fishing, and his catch was lying neatly on the floor of his canoe. When he spoke it was in a language she had never heard before, and he quickly saw her puzzlement and stopped. Instead he beckoned to her to climb into the canoe, and he made gestures of eating and drinking, which were clearly an invitation. Willow smiled, swept up her bundle, and stepped into the wooden craft, and her companion steered off downstream. The forest in this region was lush and green, with tree vines and wild flowers wherever she looked. The river snaked through the forest, and they flowed swiftly on the current, until suddenly, the land opened up on one side, and she saw a meadow, with a small wooden hut set back from the river. There were children diving and swimming in the river, and when the canoe arrived, they cried out “Papa, papa” and ran over to greet them.

Willow entered the hut and discovered that her host was called Ermidio, his wife was Clarisa, and they had five children. They planted maize on the high hillsides, and they kept a cow in their meadow, who supplied them with milk, butter and cheese. They were simple farmers, and Willow quickly settled in to help with the chores. She loved to milk the cow and to play with the children. Clarisa taught her to cook with maize, and with the passage of time, she learned to understand their language. Theirs was a world of simple things, of laughter and hard work.

Through Ermidio and Clarisa, Willow met all the folk who lived in this part of the forest, and she discovered that she had a deep affinity with the children. She especially liked to tell them stories, to sing together and to encourage them to make art of all kinds, and as one thing leads to another in life and kindness breeds kindness, the community set to work to build a school, and Willow had found her place. For only by doing something can it truly be known. Many things happened after that, too many to mention them all. Willow met Caleb, they fell in love, and they had four children of their own.  Caleb was a carpenter, with a deep love of wood. He built them a home of breath-taking simplicity and beauty, and as each child was born, he added on another room. Through her closeness to the plants, she discovered a gift for healing with herbs and people came from far and wide to seek guidance from Willow. When she reached forty years old, she took time for herself, and travelled far and wide, to distant shores. On her return, Willow had deepened and changed. She now had stories of the world beyond the forest – of mountains, oceans and deserts, but her voyage had mainly served to deepen her connection with the forest, the plants, the animals, the rivers, and the trees. She became known far and wide as the wise woman of the forest and she was loved by all.

Her children grew, and they made their own journeys. As a grandmother, she was more loving and more patient than she had known was even possible. But only by doing something can it truly be known. Then one day arrived, when she was old, with white hair, a deeply wrinkled face that told a thousand stories and had taken to smoking a short stemmed pipe, she said farewell to all and began a long walk towards the North. She walked along trails that she knew, for most of the forest was known to her now, but at a certain point, she went beyond everything that she could know or remember. She was deeply tired now, and when she arrived at the northern edge of the forest, she stood by a curved willow gate, and lit her pipe. She stood there motionless for a long time, puffing on her pipe, and gazing out at the beautiful meadow beyond her world.

In the distance she saw a young woman walking towards her, with golden hair, and wearing a leather mantle. She stared at this child, looking deep into her heart, and she felt a strange sensation that she had been here before, and that this young woman was someone she had always known, as if in a dream. As the girl approached they looked into each other’s eyes and Willow was entranced by the unfathomable depth and kindness in her gaze. The girl spoke: “Who are you, grandmother?” and she found herself replying in a strange rhyme: “I am the door, I am the key. Through me you will become who you will be.” “I’ve never noticed this gate before.” Willow nodded and blew out some smoke. “Is there a pathway behind the gate?” Willow nodded again, and smiled. “Where does it lead?”

Willow felt her heart quicken, and suddenly she remembered everything:  the deer, the briars, the glade, the school, the children and grandchildren, the plants, the magic, the medicine. And she remembered her meadow life, so long ago, and the yearning that had guided her. Her face opened into the kindest smile, and she said: “This gate leads to your future, my dear. It is the gate of destiny. Are you ready to enter? For only by doing something can it truly be known”

Willow stepped aside and the young woman saw a beautiful path descending through a sun dappled glade, and in the distance, a mother deer and her fawns were playing. She walked through the gate, and began to skip along the path, turning only once to call out: “Thank you Grandmother” but now there was no-one there, just the gate of destiny, fallen open.